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Quacks And Quackery

Sources: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery

Quackery and the love of being quacked, are in human nature as

weeds are in our fields.

DR. J. BROWN, Spare Hours.

They are Quack-salvers, Fellowes that live by senting oyles

and drugs.

BEN JONSON, Volpone, Act II, Scene 2.

These, like quacks in Medicine, excite the malady to profit by

cure, and retard the cure to augment the fees.


Here also they have, every night in summer, a world of

Montebanks, Ciarlatani, and such stuff, who together with

their remedies, strive to please the People with their little

Comedies, Popet-plays and songs.

R. LASSELS, Voy. Ital.: 1698.

Le monde n'a jamais manque de charlatans; cette science, de

tout temps, fut en professeurs tres fertile.


He took himself to be no mean Doctour, who being guilty of no

Greek, and being demanded why it was called an hectic fever;

'because,' saith he, 'of an hecking cough, which ever

attendeth that disease.'

THOMAS FULLER, The Holy State.

Man is a dupable animal. Quacks in Medicine, quacks in

Religion, and quacks in Politics know this and act upon that

knowledge. There is scarcely anyone who may not, like a trout,

be taken by tickling.


Quack doctors are indeed pompous, self-sufficient, affectedly

solemn, venal and unfeeling with a vengeance.


If Satan has ever succeeded in compressing a greater amount

of concentrated mendacity into one set of human bodies, above

every other description, it is in the advertising quacks.

Pacific Medical and Surgical Journal.

The bold and unblushing assertion of the empiric, of a

never-failing remedy, constantly reiterated, inspires

confidence in the invalid, and not unfrequently tends by its

operation on the mind, to assist in the eradication of



The word quack, meaning a charlatan, is an abbreviation of

quack-salver. To quack is to utter a harsh, croaking sound, like a

duck; and hence secondarily, to talk noisily and to make vain and loud

pretensions. And a salver is one who undertakes to perform cures

by the application of ointments or cerates. Hence the term quack-salver

was commonly used in the seventeenth century, signifying an ignorant

person, who was wont to extol the curative virtues of his salves. Now we

see, said Francis Bacon, in "The Advancement of Learning," the

weakness and credulity of men. For they will often prefer a mountebank

or witch before a learned physician. And therefore the poets were

clear-sighted in discerning this extreme folly, when they made

Esculapius and Circe brother and sister. For in all times, in the

opinion of the multitude, witches, old women and impostors have had a

competition with physicians.

According to one authority, the term quack is derived from an ancient

Saxon word, signifying small, slender and trifling, and hence was

applied to shallow and frivolous itinerant peddlers, who foisted upon a

credulous community such wares as penny-plasters, balsam of liquorice

for coughs, snuffs for headaches, and infallible eye-lotions.

It has also been maintained that quack is a corruption of quake, and

that quack-doctors were so called because, in marshy districts, patients

affected with intermittent fever, sometimes vulgarly known as the

quakes, were wont to be treated by ignorant persons, who professed to

charm away the disease, and hence were styled quake-doctors.

In William Harrison's "Description of the Island of Britain," occurs the

following curious passage: "Now we have many chimneys, and yet our

tenderlings complain of reumes, catarres and poses; then had we none but

reredores, and our heads did never ake. For, as the smoke in those days

was supposed to be a sufficient hardening for the timber of the house,

so it was reputed a far better medicine to keep the good man and his

family from the quacke or pose, wherewith as then very few were

acquainted." A writer in "Notes and Queries," remarked that the

word quacke, in the foregoing extract, probably signified a disease

rather than a charlatan, and possibly the mysterious affection known as

"the poofs," from which good Queen Bess suffered one cold winter. This

quacke appears to have been a novelty and therefore fashionable,

affected by the tenderlings of that era, "as the proper thing to have."

The quack-doctor, continues the writer above mentioned, must have been a

fashionable style of man, not meddling much with the poor, and familiar

with boudoirs, curing the new disease with new and wondrous remedies.

May not the word quacke, asks Stylites, another enquirer, as above

used, mean quake or ague? For an ague-doctor must have had much

employment, and if successful, great renown, in those days of fens,

marshes and undrained ground.

In an anniversary discourse delivered before the New York Academy of

Medicine, November 7, 1855, Dr. John Watson remarked that the numbers

and pretensions of the illegitimate sons of Esculapius were as great in

ancient as in modern times. And they were quite as wont to receive the

patronage of the upper classes. The Emperor Nero thus favored the shrewd

Lydian practitioner, Thessalus, who maintained that all learning was

without value.

And if we may believe the statements of Pliny and Galen, the Roman

quacks equalled, if they did not exceed, in ignorance and arrogance,

the vast horde of handicraftsmen, bone-setters, herniotomists,

lithotomists, abortionists, and poison-venders, who overran Southern

Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

The inhabitants of ancient Chaldea, in common with many primitive

peoples of later times, cherished the belief that all diseases were

caused by demons. Medicine was merely a branch of Magic, and the chief

healing agents were exorcisms, incantations, and enchanted beverages.

There were, properly speaking, no physicians. Sometimes, wrote Francois

Lenormant, in "Chaldean Magic," disease was regarded as an effect of the

wickedness of different demons, and sometimes it appears to have been

considered as the work of a distinct malevolent being, who exercised his

power upon man.

According to the old Shamanic belief, which was the primeval religion of

all mankind, every physical ailment is caused by a little devil which

enters the body and can be expelled therefrom only by means of magic.

Abundant traces of this doctrine, says Charles Godfrey Leland in "Gipsy

Sorcery," appear in our highest civilization and religion among people

who gravely attribute every evil to the Devil, instead of to the

unavoidable antagonisms of nature. "If," continues this writer, "a pen

drops from our fingers, or a penny rolls from our grasp, the former, of

course, falls on our new white dress, while the latter, nine times out

of ten, goes directly to the nearest grating, crack or rat-hole."

In the religion of the ancient Copts, the Devil was believed to have

inherited from his ancestors all the power attributed by ignorance and

superstition to certain superior beings. He it was who originated all

diseases, and by a singular contradiction, he likewise cured them,

either directly or through the agency of the magicians and quacks who

followed in his train.

According to a widespread doctrine of antiquity, innumerable demons were

ever active in endeavoring to inflict diseases upon the bodies of human


No medical practitioner, however skilful, could successfully cope with

these supernatural beings. Their evil designs could be checked only by

experts in occult science. It has been said that whoever humors the

credulity of man, is sure to prosper. The modern quack exemplifies this.

"The Devil, the Christian successor of the ancient evil spirit, has

exerted a great influence on the medical views of all classes of people.

He and his successors were considered 'the disturbers of the peace' in

the health of humanity. The Devil was able to influence each individual

organ in a manner most disagreeable to the owner of the same."

Although the hideous portrayals of the Evil One, with horns, hoofs,

pitchfork, and tail, appealed strongly to the imagination, they were

wholly fanciful. If Satan were to appear in human form, as for example

in the guise of a charlatan (says William Ramsey in "The Depths of

Satan," 1889), we might expect him to assume the appearance, dress and

demeanor of a gentleman.

Indeed, although the idea of the embodiment of evil is naturally

repellent, a study of the Devil's personality, as represented in

theology, romance, and popular tradition, reveals much that is

interesting. In the role of a medical pretender, however, he deserves no

more sympathy than any other quack.

In England, says William George Black, in "Folk-Medicine," the Devil has

long represented much of the paganism still existing, and seems to have

been regarded almost as the head of the medical profession. He has

enjoyed the reputation of being able to inflict and cure diseases, not

only those of his own production, but also natural diseases, since he

knows their origin and causes better than physicians can. For, wrote the

learned Dutch practitioner and demonologist, Johann Wier (1515-1588),

physicians being younger than the Devil, must necessarily have had less


James Grant, in the "Mysteries of All Nations" (page 1), remarks that

the doctrine of devils is of great antiquity, probably dating from the


The immediate descendants of Adam and Eve must have learned from them,

or by tradition, the circumstances connected with the temptation, fall,

and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Therefore it seems highly

probable that the serpent was regarded, at a very early period, as

something more than an ordinary earthly reptile.

In the Dark Ages popular opinion credited the Devil with a vast amount

of erudition; and he was, moreover, reputed to be well versed in medical

science and magical arts. Whenever a man of genius had accomplished some

task which appeared to be above the powers of the human mind, it was

commonly believed that the Devil either had performed the work or had at

least rendered some assistance.

Burton quotes from the German philosopher, Nicholas Taurellus (born

1547), as follows: "Many doubt whether the Devil can cure such diseases

as he hath not made; and some flatly deny it. Howsoever, common

experience confirms to our astonishment that magic can work such facts,

and that the Devil without impediment can penetrate through all the

parts of our bodies, and cure such maladies by means to us unknown."

Again, says Burton, many famous cures are daily performed, affording

evidence that the Devil is an expert physician; and God oftentimes

permits witches and magicians to produce these effects. Paracelsus

encouraged his patients to cultivate a strong imagination, whereby they

should experience beneficial results. . . . Therein lies the secret in a

nutshell. If a man has confidence in the treatment prescribed by a

charlatan, he may be benefited thereby. The Devil is a charlatan.

Therefore, if God permit, even diabolical remedies may be efficacious,

if the patient's faith in them is strong enough. It is not so much the

quality as the strength of the faith, says Dr. McComb in "Religion and

Medicine," that is of vital moment, so far as the removal of a given

disorder is concerned.

The Christians of the early centuries accepted the pagan doctrine of

demonology without modification. The belief in demoniac possession and

the belief in witches were later developments from this same doctrine.

In the third century originated a new order of ecclesiastics, whose

members were known as exorcists. The expulsion of evil spirits was their

special function. But in addition to the official exorcists, many

sorcerers and magicians assumed to cure the possessed, as well as those

suffering from other diseases. The idea of good and evil demons assumed

in the Middle Ages a specifically Christian character, which resembled

the ancient Babylonian doctrine except that the good demons were

replaced by angels and saints, whereas the evil spirits were embodied in

the Devil. Both saints and devils were thenceforth destined to play

their part in the domain of medicine.

Martin Luther, as is well known, was a firm believer in the doctrine

which held that the Devil was the originator of all diseases. No

ailment, maintained the great reformer, comes from God, who is good, and

does good to every one. It is the Devil who causes and performs all

mischief, who interferes with all play and all arts, and who brings

about pestilences and fevers. Luther believed that he himself was

compelled, when his physical condition was out of order, to have a

scuffle with the Evil One, and thereby obtain the mastery over


Tatian, the Syrian writer, of the second century, declared that the

profligacy of demons had made use of the productions of nature for evil

purposes. The demons, he wrote, do not cure, but by their art make men

their captives.

In that age, everybody, of whatever class or station in life, believed

in the existence of demons, who were thought to be omnipresent,

infesting men and the lower animals, as well as trees and rivers. At the

time of the Reformation the same belief prevailed and was an important

factor in influencing men's actions.

A belief in the personality of the Evil One is amply warranted by

Scripture. What is not warranted, says a writer in "Social

England," by anything in Holy Writ, is the medieval conception of

Satan, ruling over a kingdom of darkness, in rivalry with God.

Ignorance is guided by terror, rather than by love. To the

undisciplined mind, whatever is supernatural or unexpected, makes a

stronger appeal than the familiar phenomena of daily life. We cannot

understand the motives and acts of our forefathers, wrote Henry C. Lea,

in a "History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages," unless we take

into consideration the mental condition engendered by the consciousness

of a daily and hourly personal contact with Satan.

Charlatans were not unknown in the fifth century B. C. For the great

Hippocrates inveighed against those who relied on amulets and charms as

curative agents. In his view, the physician should possess a mind of

such serenity and dignity as to be superior to superstition, for the

latter is incompatible with a knowledge of the truth.

The Romans of old, who drove nails into the walls of the Temple of

Jupiter, in the hope of warding off the Plague, employed thereby a quack


Indeed, for more than six hundred years, they had no physicians, but

employed theurgic methods of treatment by means of prayers, charms, and

prescriptions from the ancient Sibylline Books, which were reputed to

date from the reign of Tarquin the Proud, in the sixth century B. C.

These volumes were kept in a stone chest, under ground, in the Temple of

Jupiter Capitolinus at Rome. The ancient Romans possessed only the rude

surgery and domestic medicine of the barbarians, until the importation

of scientific methods from Greece. Cato the Censor (B. C. 234-149)

disliked physicians, partly because they were mostly Greeks, and partly

because he himself, although venerated as a model of Roman virtue, was

an outrageous quack, who thought himself equal to a whole college of


From a very early time, and for many centuries, medical pretenders and

empirics were known as "magicians." Practitioners of this class throve

exceedingly during the reigns of several Roman emperors. They strove to

work upon the imaginations of the people by sensational curative

methods. Inasmuch, wrote Dr. Hugo Magnus, as whatever is curious and

unusual, has always possessed a special fascination for humanity, the

incredible remedies of the magicians found everywhere hosts of

believers. And as the most nonsensical theories, if well tinged with the

miraculous, find eager credence, there developed a rude form of

psycho-therapy. For by the employment of extraordinary and even

loathsome substances, many of which had no value as material remedies,

they sought to impress curative ideas upon the minds of their patients,

and doubtless very often with success. Inventive genius must have been

sorely taxed among the magicians, in their endeavors to originate

sensational prescriptions. The voluminous works of Alexander of

Tralles, Quintus Serenus Samonicus, Marcellus Empiricus, and of many

others, show how close was the union between medicine and magic. An

enumeration of uncouth remedies formerly in vogue would fill huge

pharmacopoeias, and belongs to the domain of Folk-Medicine. Let one or

two examples suffice here.

For the removal of those hardened portions of the epidermis, usually

occurring upon the feet, and vulgarly known as corns, Pliny the Elder,

in his "Natural History," recommends the sufferer, after observing the

flight of a meteor, to pour a little vinegar upon the hinge of a door.

And Sextus Placitus Papyriensis, a nonsensical medical writer of the

fourth century, advises, for the cure of glaucoma, that the affected eye

be rubbed with the corresponding organ of a wolf.

Dr. Theodor Puschmann, in his "History of Medical Education," quotes an

old writer who inveighed against those practitioners who were

wont to fill the ears of their patients with stories of their own

professional skill, while depreciating the services of others of the

fraternity. Such unscrupulous quacks sought also to win over the

patient's friends by little attentions, flatteries and innuendoes. Many,

said this philosopher, recoil from a man of skill even, if he is a

braggart. "When the doctor," he continues, "attended by a man known to

the patient, and having a right of entry into the house, advances into

the dwelling of the sick man, he should make his appearance in good

clothes, with an inclination of the head; he should be thoughtful and of

good bearing, and observe all possible respect. So soon as he is within,

word, thought and attention should be given to nothing else but the

examination of the patient, and whatever else appertains to the case."

In England, during the earliest times, the administration of medicines

was always attended with religious ceremonial, such as the repetition of

a psalm. These observances however were often tinctured with a good deal

of heathenism, the traditional folk-lore of the country, in the form of

charms, magic and starcraft. It is evident, wrote the author of "Social

England," from the cases preserved by monkish chronicles, that

the element of hysteria was prominent in the maladies of the Middle

Ages, and that these affections were therefore peculiarly susceptible to

psychic treatment. The Angles and Saxons brought with them to England a

belief in medicinal runes and healing spells, and the cures wrought by

their medical men were attributed to the magic potency of the charms

employed. Some interesting information on contemporary manners is

contained in a "Book of Counsels to Young Practitioners" (A. D. 1300).

The use of polysyllabic and unintelligible words is therein

recommended, probably as a goad to the patient's imagination.

Medical charms, wrote a shrewd philosopher of old, are not to be used

because they can effect any change, but because they bring the patient

into a better frame of mind.

An interesting account of the manners and methods of itinerant

charlatans of the period is found in "English Wayfaring Life in the

Middle Ages" (fourteenth century), by the noted writer and diplomat, M.

Jean Jules Jusserand. These Bohemian mountebanks went about the world,

selling health. They selected the village green or market-place as

headquarters, and spreading a carpet or piece of cloth on the ground,

proceeded to harangue the populace. Big words, marvellous tales, praise

of their own distinguished ancestry, enumeration of the wonderful cures

wrought by themselves, statements of their purely altruistic motives and

benevolent designs, and of their contempt for filthy lucre, these were

characteristic features of their discourses, which preceded the

exhibition and sale of infallible nostrums.

The law, wrote M. Jusserand, distinguished very clearly between an

educated physician and a cheap-jack of the cross-ways. The court-doctor,

for example, had the support of an established reputation. He had

studied at one of the universities, and he offered the warranty of his

high position. The wandering herbalist was less advantageously known. In

the country, indeed, he was usually able to escape the rigor of the

laws, but in the cities and larger towns he could not ply his trade with

impunity. The joyous festivals of Old England attracted many of these

hawkers of pills and elixirs, for on such occasions they met the rustic

laborers, whose simplicity rendered them an easy prey. These

peasant-folk pressed around, open-mouthed, uncertain whether they ought

to laugh or to be afraid. But they finished usually by buying specimens

of the eloquently vaunted cure-alls.

In medieval times, we are told, it was difficult to distinguish quacks

from skilled practitioners, because the latter were inclined to be

superstitious. In the year 1220 the University of Paris, with the

sanction of the Church and municipality, issued a statute against

unlicensed practitioners, and in 1271 another, whereby Jews and Jewesses

were forbidden "to practice medicine or surgery on any Catholic

Christian." All so-called chirurgeons and apothecaries, as well as

herbalists, of either sex, were enjoined from visiting patients,

performing operations, or prescribing any medicines except certain

confections in common use, unless in the presence and under the

direction of a physician, the penalties being excommunication,

imprisonment, and fine.

Never before, says Roswell Park, M.D., in "An Epitome of the History of

Medicine," were there so many sorcerers, astrologers and alchemists, as

existed at the close of the Dark Ages. These were mostly restless

adventurers, of a class common at all periods of history, who chafed

under the yoke of authority. Such individuals, in enlisting in the army

of charlatans, were not usually actuated by philanthropic motives.

Whatever benevolent sentiments they may have entertained, were in behalf

of themselves. Many of them lived apart, as recluses, and were, in

modern parlance, cranks, who lacked mental poise. Yet they were usually

shrewd, and more or less adepts in occult science.

The power of auto-suggestion was evident in the cures of medieval

ailments wrought by the methods of faith-healing. Prayer and

intercession were the chief means employed, but these were often

supplemented by the use of concoctions of medicinal herbs from the

monastery garden.

The resources of therapeutics were, moreover, derived from a strange

mixture of magic, astrology, and alchemy. A contemporary manual of

"Hints to Physicians" advised the doctor, when called to visit a

patient, to recommend himself to God, and to the Archangel Raphael.

Then, after having refreshed himself with a drink, he was to praise the

beauty of the country and the liberality of the family. He was also

cautioned to avoid expressing a hasty opinion of the case, because the

patient's friends would attach the more value to the physician's

judgment, if they were obliged to wait for it.

Paracelsus devoted much attention to chemistry as a science distinct

from alchemy. Indeed he may be regarded as the founder of medical

chemistry. He extolled the merits of certain medicines now

recognized as among the most valuable in the modern pharmacopoeia.

Chief among these was the tincture of opium, to which he gave its

present name of laudanum, a contraction of laudandum, something to be


The eccentric German alchemist and philosopher, Henry Cornelius Agrippa

(1486-1535), described a prosperous charlatan of his day as "clad in

brave apparel, and having on his fingers showy rings, glittering with

precious stones; a fellow who had gotten fame on account of his travels

in far countries, and by reason of his obstinate manner of vaunting with

stiff lies the merits of his nostrums. Such an one had continually in

his mouth many barbarous and uncouth words."

Towards the close of the sixteenth century, France was invaded by a

horde of mountebanks in showy and fantastic garb, who went from one town

to another, loudly and with brazen effrontery proclaiming in the

market-places their ability to cure every kind of ailment. And the

people, then as now easily duped, lent willing ears to these wily

pretenders, and bought freely of their marvellous pills and


The prevalence of quackery in England is shown by a preamble to a

statute of Henry VIII, as follows: "Forasmuch as the science and cunning

of Physic and Surgery are daily, within this Realm, exercised by a great

number of ignorant persons, of whom the greater part have no insight in

the same, nor in any other kind of learning. Some also ken no letters on

the book; so far forth that common artificers, as smiths, weavers and

women, boldly and accustomably take upon them great cures, in which they

partly use scorcery and witchcraft, and partly apply such remedies to

the disease as being very noxious and nothing meet; to the high

displeasure of God, great infamy to the Faculty, and the grievous damage

and destruction of divers of the King's people, most especially of them

that cannot discern the cunning from the uncunning."

Probably Dr. Gilbert Skeene, of Aberdeen, Scotland, had in mind such

pretenders, when he wrote, in a treatise on the Plague, published in

1568, that "Medicineirs are mair studious of their ain helthe nor

of the common weilthe."

A statute of the thirty-fourth year of Henry VIII (1543) contains the

statement that although the majority of the members of the craft of

chirurgeons had small cunning, yet they would accept large sums of

money, and do little therefor; by reason whereof their patients suffered

from neglect.

At about this period, many were the marvellous remedies which were

advertised, and keen was the rivalry among empirics, in their efforts to

outdo their brethren in the selection of high-sounding names for their

vaunted panaceas. Among the latter were to be found such choice nostrums

as rectifiers of the vitals, which were warranted to supply the places

of all other medicines whatsoever.

Other pleasing remedies rejoiced in the names of vivifying drops,

cephalic tinctures, gripe-waters, and angelical specifics.

"The Anatomyes of the True Physition and Counterfeit Mounte-banke"

(imprinted at London, 1605) contains an enumeration of some of the

classes of people wherefrom recruits were drawn to swell the ranks of

charlatans in England some three centuries ago. Such were:

Runagate Jews, the cut-throats and robbers of Christians,

slow-bellied monks, who have made escape from their cloisters,

simoniacal and perjured shavelings, busy Sir John lack-Latins,

thrasonical and unlettered chemists, shifting and outcast

pettifoggers, light-headed and trivial druggers and

apothecaries, sun-shunning night-birds and corner-creepers,

dull-pated and base mechanics, stage-players, jugglers,

peddlers, prittle-prattling barbers, filthy graziers, curious

bath-keepers, common shifters and cogging cavaliers, bragging

soldiers, lazy clowns, one-eyed or lamed fencers, toothless

and tattling old wives, chattering char-women and

nurse-keepers, long-tongued midwives, 'scape-Tyburns,

dog-leeches, and such-like baggage. In the next rank, to

second this goodly troupe, follow poisoners, enchanters,

wizards, fortune-tellers, magicians, witches and hags. Now, if

you take a good view of these sweet companions, you shall find

them, not only dolts, idiots and buzzards; but likewise

contemners and haters of all good learning.

For the greater part of them disdain book-learning, and never

came where learning grew. . . . They are such as cannot abide

to take any pains or travel in study. They reject incomparable

Galen's learned Commentaries, as tedious and frivolous

discourses, having found through Paracelsus's Vulcanian shop,

a more short way to the Wood. . . . Others are so notoriously

sottish, that being over head and ears in the myrie puddle of

gross ignorance, yet they will by no means see or acknowledge


For to give an instance in the most absolute, exquisite and

divine frame of man's body, if they can shew a rude

description thereof, hanging in their chamber, and nickname

two or three parts, (so as it would make a horse to break his

halter to hear them) they think themselves jolly fellows, and

are esteemed great anatomists in the eyes of the Vulgar. . . .

Now it is the honestest and safest course for good and learned

physicians, to have no society with these barbarians, enemies

to all antiquity, humanity and good learning, lest they hear

the old saying, like will to like. As was said of the Devil

dancing with the collier.

We may glean some information about the methods of the practising quacks

of the seventeenth century, from the following announcement, which is to

be found in Cotgrave's "Treasury of Wit and Language" (1665):

"My name is Pulsefeel, a poor Doctor of Physick,

That does wear three-pile velvet in his hat,

Has paid a quarter's rent of his house beforehand,

And (simple as he stands here) was made doctor beyond sea.

I vow, as I am right worshipful, the taking

Of my degree cost me twelve French crowns, and

Thirty-five pounds of butter in Upper Germany.

I can make your beauty and preserve it,

Rectifie your bodie and maintaine it,

Clarifie your blood, surfle your cheeks, perfume

Your skin, tinct your hair, enliven your eye,

Heighten your appetite; and as for Jellies,

Dentifrizes, Dyets, Minerals, Fricasses,

Pomatums, Fumes, Italia masks to sleep in,

Either to moisten or dry the superficies, Faugh! Galen

Was a goose and Paracelsus a Patch, to Doctor Pulsefeel."